Monday, June 16, 2008

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

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I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing works of fiction in order to talk about an important (but not new) book about religion and religious extremism. The book is by the respected writer of mountain-climbing and outdoor adventure, Jon Krakauer, and is titled Under The Banner Of Heaven. It is not a happy book; indeed, it is sometimes grisly and depressing, and yet I think it is a book we should all read.

At least in my view, Krakauer is an even-handed and fair chronicler of the origins of Mormonism and of the contemporary fundamentalist offshoots grouped together under the title Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). There has been much in the news lately about the raid on one of these fundamentalist sects located in Texas, and I can think of no better way of getting some perspective on what is happening there than to read Krackauer’s excellent book.

Krackauer began researching for this book because of his interest in two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who claimed to receive a commandment from God to kill the wife and baby of a third brother. The Lafferty brothers were from a large and very well respected Mormon family which had long been active, fervent, and influential. The murders occurred in 1984 in a lazy small town just south of Salt Lake City and received national attention for sometime afterwards. As all of you probably know, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has for many years sought to distance itself from these splinter groups (which still actively practice polygamy), but it took very little research by Krakauer to discover that the practice of polygamy has deep roots within the main established church, and that these splinter offshoots, rather than bizarre anomalies, are actually the quite natural consequence of the beliefs and practices of the main church. Indeed, the scriptures of the main church and the splinter groups are identical, and those in the reform churches insist that they are simply returning to pivotal parts of the doctrine abandoned by the main church because of pressure from the federal government. The reformists insist that it was a matter of cowardice (rather than divine guidance) that led to these doctrinal changes, or a combination of cowardice and the desire to grab and hold power and exclusive claims to sanctity.

I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and my staunchly Mormon mother insisted that her sons always proudly use their middle name of Smith to lay claim to what she insisted was a direct genealogical line to the originator of this wealthy and huge religion (the fastest growing church in the world), the alleged seer and prophet, Joseph Smith. The youngest of four sons, I was expected to do what my brothers had failed to do, namely, go on a Mormon mission to convert others to The Truth. That this prospect loomed in my future made me a particularly serious and inquiring young man who listened intently at testimony meetings to all those who claimed to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the teachings of the Mormon church were the one and only truth, and that adherence to its doctrines was the only way to achieve the Celestial Kingdom, the highest degree of glory in the afterlife. I believed, but could not claim to know, and thus began the search that eventually led me away from the Church and its claim to exclusive truth.

From my earliest forays of curiosity regarding Mormonism and its claim to exclusive truth, I noticed that there seemed to be a cloud of secrecy concerning the actual history of the Mormons and its originator, and that historians who sought to pierce that cloud and/or to present a view of its history different from the almost Disney-world version presented by what we simply called The Church were dealt with harshly. Indeed, even devout Mormons who dared to reveal some of the shady behavior of the young Joseph (or the persecutions by early Mormons of non-Mormons traveling through Utah) were promptly excommunicated. I recall reading the excellent and mostly innocent history written by Fran Brodie, No Man Knows My History, and being warned by Mormon friends that even reading the book constituted grounds for expulsion.

Krakauer is hardly the first writer to point out that the Mormon Church has gone to extremes to suppress much of its actual history, even buying up and vaulting historical documents that contradict the official view (sometimes paying exorbitant sums for what turned out to be fraudulent documents). But the reaction to Krakauer’s book, like those of writers before him who dared to expose the philandering of Joseph Smith (long before the practice of polygamy became an official ‘revealed’ doctrine) or of historical inaccuracies in the church’s accepted account has been typical. Mormons are instructed, commanded is really a better choice of words, not to read the book, and Krakauer (like so many before him) has been vilified.

However, what I am asking you as readers to do is to read this book for yourselves. I think you will be (as I was) astounded by some of the documented history of not simply the so-called extremist offshoots of Mormonism but of the church itself, from its very inception. I think you will see the contempt Mormons (and so many other churches) have had towards secular authorities, and how little they really believe in the separation of church and state (except when it is convenient for their purposes to insist on such a separation). From the first, their arrogant conviction of standing in the Truth has led to a flaunting of civil law and to a dismissive disregard of all those outside the fold.

But I think you should read this book not simply as a way of seeing the dangers in Mormonism. If you look closely enough at the history of your own favorite religion, I think you will come to see quite quickly that claims of being specially chosen by God, of being in exclusive possession of The Truth, are central in religion, and that chosen-people mentality has been one of the most divisive forces in history. Furthermore, I think if you are open and fair in your examination of the histories of the various major religions, you will see that the current so-called evangelical atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (among others) are not the intolerant and strident voices that many commentators have insisted, but instead brave folks who are warning us of the very real dangers of religious fundamentalism. It is not they, I would insist, who are the intolerant or fanatical voices.

In the final analysis, books like Krakauer’s may be even better than the more abstract and intellectual critiques of religion, because his book shows so clearly that the so called extremes are not accidents, not anomalies, but are born in the very crucible of religious fervor. It is religious views that must be scrutinized in the light of genuine, rational morality, and not the other way round (as so many religions seem to insist).

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